March 3, 2023

Southwest Wisconsin Technical College students tour Cardinal-Hickory Creek project

Students pursuing STEM education program talk with ATC, M.J. Electric and Electric TV 

Under an azure sky in the early morning of Feb. 28, a steady stream of cars filed into the Hill Valley Substation access road near Montfort, Wis. Nearly 40 students from Southwest Wisconsin Technical College parked across a span of frosty, wooden mats and emerged from their cars to huddle around ATC senior construction manager, Zac Eide, for the day’s safety brief. 

Students and staff from the school, ATC representatives, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the National Electrical Contractors Association shuffled their way down the still-frozen mud to get a firsthand look at one of the largest substations under construction in ATC’s footprint. It was the first of five stops along the route for the students to see the Cardinal-Hickory Creek Transmission Line Project – a nearly complete, 102-mile, 345,000-volt transmission line that stretches from western Dane County, Wisconsin, to Dubuque County, Iowa.  

Throughout the tour, there was no shortage of questions. 

“How much oil can the transformer hold?” one student asked.  

“What are the corona rings for?” asked another.  

“What’s the size of this pier foundation?”  

“How much does a substation like this even cost?” 

“Why is the conductor woven together like that?” 

“All great questions,” remarked Eide, who fielded the inquiries. 

The SWTC students are enrolled in the school’s Electric Power Distribution program. While the focus is on electric distribution, it’s often a first step that many students take before enrolling in an apprenticeship. EDP is a 9-month science, technology, engineering and math program that includes an added bonus: earning a commercial driver’s license upon completion. 

ATC alliance contractors, M.J. Electric and MP Systems, have given many SWTC students an apprenticeship in the past, which sometimes leads to that individual working on ATC property. 

IBEW 953 organizer and SWTC liaison, Nick Webber, had contacted ATC in fall 2022 to request the tour. He followed the group with a bright smile, knowing that the students were gaining unique insight into construction techniques from ATC’s contractor for the project, M.J. Electric.  

The tour was documented by Electric TV, a Colorado-based film crew representing the IBEW and NECA. Their joint program features an online broadcast of electrical union laborers working on complex infrastructure projects throughout the country. The online segment is scheduled to be live in March 2023.  

Following the full rotation around the substation components and control house, the group traveled to see the new transmission line construction in portions of Iowa and Dane counties. Across the various stops throughout the morning, students had the opportunity to watch the M.J. Electric crews drilling, framing, setting and doing wire work. 

“Just to see what they’re doing in the substations and the transmission lines…it’s a really big deal,” said SWTC student, Connor Murray. “Seeing it firsthand really helps put everything all together that you learn in school and it’s really good exposure to what we’re going to be doing when we get out of school.” 

Fellow student Kevin Jones offered, “I had a previous career in law enforcement corrections, and I wanted a change. Being a student at Southwest Tech and being part of the tour, you get the opportunity to see what the crews are doing up close and personal. We can read about it and see videos but being here and getting a walk-through step by step, it really opens your eyes. It’s kind of neat to see the guys working and know we’ll have a chance to do what they’re doing.” 

The tour concluded back at the Hill Valley Substation at midday. By then, the sun had melted the frosty mats and the frozen walkways gave way to softer grounds.  

“This was a good day,” said Eide. “Given the engagement and all their interest, hosting these students from SWTC on our Cardinal-Hickory Creek project was an important investment, and time well spent. The students got the opportunity to learn, and we got an opportunity to shape their futures.”